Freedom Means Responsibility

My first summer job in high school was as a copy boy for The Indianapolis Star newspaper. Yes, it was so long ago that we were called copy “boys” and nobody got triggered about sexism or patriarchy.

Every morning when I arrived at work, I passed a plaque in the building’s lobby. It had a quote from the publisher of the newspaper, Eugene S. Pulliam:

“America is great only because America is free.”

The Indianapolis Star of that era is long gone, gobbled up by the Gannett media company and transformed into an ever-thinner local edition of USA Today. But Pulliam’s quote has stuck with me. Does freedom make it possible to achieve greatness?

Pulliam was talking about individual freedom: that is, each person’s right to decide what to believe, how to live, and what to do with his or her life.

That kind of freedom is both exhilarating and a little frightening. It means you can choose your own path, but also that you are responsible for your choices.

If you choose wrong, then you might fall on your face: not because of “the system” or because people are mean, but because you made a mistake. It’s kind of a scary thought.

I’ll tell you a couple of things that most people know in their hearts, but often forget in their heads:

  • Life kicks the hell out of everyone: the good and the bad, the rich and the poor, regardless of status or social group. Suffering comes to all of us. We can’t control that fact. What we can control is how we react to it. Do we learn from the experience and vow to do better next time? Or do we wallow in self-pity?
  • The only people who never fail are those who never try. People who stay inside their comfort zone can never become more than they already are. If we only do things for which success is guaranteed, we’ll never know how much more we could have achieved. The way to improve is to push our limits, and that means risking failure. Television evangelist Robert Schuller had a saying I like: “The only shame is low aim.”

Being free means taking responsibility for your own life. If you want other people to take care of you, then you must surrender some of your freedom to them. If they’re going to be responsible for what happens to you, it’s only fair that they get to tell you what to do. You can’t have it both ways.

So which way will you choose? Either way, the choice is yours. And so is responsibility for the results. Don’t be scared. You’re stronger than you think.

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
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2 Responses to Freedom Means Responsibility

  1. J P says:

    I sometimes fear that real freedom is becoming a poorly understood concept among the young. Freedom to do popular things (like legal drugs) is great, but it’s the freedom to do unpopular things (like saying thoughtless, unkind things to people) that seems endangered. I hope I’m wrong.


    • N.S. Palmer says:

      That’s where shared culture and norms of behavior come into play. The law can’t dictate every detail of human interactions, nor would any sane person want it to do that. In order for people to get along in society, they need to have a shared understanding and tacit agreement about how to behave, what’s allowed, what’s tolerated, and what’s forbidden. We no longer have it. A combination of inevitable entropy, deliberate subversion, and misguided tolerance of the intolerable has shattered our consensus into a thousand mutually-hostile pieces.

      We are required to pretend we believe that “diversity is our strength,” but any intelligent person who thinks about it knows it isn’t true. Mandating such nonsense is a way to compromise people’s integrity, to force them to say what they know is false, just as O’Brien in “1984” forced Winston Smith to say that 2+2=5. After you’ve surrendered to the claim that “2+2=5,” then on what grounds can you say that any other belief is false, especially if it’s told to you by a man in a dress?

      My main comfort is that God knows what He is doing, even if we don’t. We’re just going to have to hang tough, get through it, and never give up.


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